It’s no surprise, then, that business owners and IT department heads are seeking solutions to automate manual workflows within their organisation. A manual task performed one time is harmless, but when that same task needs to be performed repeatedly, then it can bring office productivity and efficiency to a crawl. Day-to-day manual tasks such as data input, copying and pasting, or simply pressing the submit button take up a quarter of a knowledge worker’s workweek. As necessary as these tasks are, they are very tedious and eat up chunks of an employee’s workday, leading to a slowdown of business processes. These repetitive manual tasks are also prone to human error, further costing a company resources. So, what then is the best solution to address this? One emerging technological solution is Robotic Process Automation.
Automation plays a crucial role in our society today. The main purpose of automation is to simplify processes that are both repetitive and time-consuming to do manually. An everyday example of automation is your household washing machine, which greatly speeds up a weekly house chore. And with advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI), we are seeing an unprecedented level of process automation today. In the customer service field, if you reach out to a company’s customer service, chances are your first interaction will be with a chatbot or phone system before speaking with an actual customer representative. Looking forward, you can even expect driverless cars to transport passengers to their destinations.
What is RPA?
Despite its name, Robotic Process Automation, or RPA, is not referring to a literal robot worker. Instead, RPA refers to software “robots” that handle repetitive processes at high volumes. On its own, RPA operates on rule-based processes, performing structured and tedious tasks that don’t require complex decision-making. But integrations with AI have vastly improved RPA’s capability to do much more. When paired together with AI, RPA bots can process more complex jobs, such as visual understanding and handling unstructured processes, which underscore their true value to business workflows. One attractive aspect of RPA is that it can be deployed without requiring companies to configure or overhaul their legacy infrastructure, a delight for IT heads. RPA has big implications for knowledge workers, as its deployment could potentially eliminate portions of employee time spent performing repetitive functions while reallocating their time to working on more value-adding projects and serving customers. According to Gartner, RPA revenue grew 63.1 per cent in 2018 to $846 billion, and is projected to reach $1.3 billion by the end of 2019. Major vendors UiPath and Automation Anywhere have already raced out to hot starts by securing multi-billion-dollar valuations, further underlining the promise of RPA.
How does it work?
RPA works by emulating step-by-step actions of a predefined process flow mapped out by an employee or developer. The process flow tells the software bot what actions to perform, exactly how to perform them, and which application to perform them in. Let’s use the task of logging new customer data as an example. A bot can be programmed to open and scrub through a customer-submitted form and extract typical values like name, address, phone number and more. It then opens and logs into the company’s CRM application, creates a new account and inserts the values into the corresponding fields. Finally, the bot opens an archiving application and files the original form into an appointed directory to complete the workflow. A 10-minute process that’s normally executed by an employee can now be automated by a software bot in a fraction of the time. Also, RPA will never stray outside of the predetermined rules, so processes are executed with the highest precision and always compliant with regulations. Finally, RPA software does not take breaks and can function around the clock, meaning all its assigned tasks can be executed beyond typical business hours. When a bot is programmed to perform multiple workflows that exist in a department, it could significantly improve the level of efficiency and boost morale around the office.
Is RPA a threat to the existing workforce?
Understandably, with all of RPA’s capabilities and promises, there are concerns about how the technology’s streamlining of workflows might impact or outright eliminate workers who primarily perform these tasks. To be clear, the technology is not designed to replace office workers at all. Instead, an RPA bot acts more like an employee’s personal assistant. This virtual assistant is delegated to handling large volumes of repetitive processes, allowing the employee to do more mind-intensive work. Complex tasks like analysis, customer interaction, and negotiations require acute judgment and empathy, which are job functions that RPA technology is incapable of replicating and will never be able to automate. When RPA is deployed, employees can dedicate the bulk of their workday to such tasks rather than being bottlenecked by the more repetitive parts of their jobs. Make no mistake, the most important resource of companies are its employees. RPA technology is not here to take over their jobs. On the contrary, it makes the daily job easier for them.
Is RPA right for your organisation?
While RPA will certainly be a boon for most organisations, not all companies will benefit from this technology. Before deploying RPA software within your department, take inventory of all the manual jobs that are required to keep your business running as well as the employees that execute them. Then answer some critical questions: Do these tasks require manoeuvring between multiple applications and some light decision-making? How much time does it take to perform a task? What is the frequency of these tasks? On average, how much time are your employees spending on executing these tasks in the office?
Below is a list of day-to-day manual tasks which can likely be automated and serve as good examples of where RPA can greatly aid your team:
- Filling out forms
- Copy and pasting values from program to program
- Making calculations
- Logging into applications
- Redacting specified words, phrases or patterns
- Dragging and dropping files and folders
- Opening emails and attachments
- Scraping web data
Once you have a better understanding of your department’s workflows, you’ll be better suited to determine the ROI of RPA technology, such as workforce time saved and reduction of errors. It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to take the plunge and blanket your entire organisation with RPA software. You can always start small by first piloting an RPA program which applies software bots to just a few workflows. Use these workflows to measure success and build your RPA strategy from there.
Stanley Chow, Sr Product Marketing Manager, Foxit Software